7. Love Poems

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Artists, poets, painters, writers, musicians- these people are not on a higher plane than anyone else. They aren’t any smarter or better people than anyone else. In fact, they’re oftentimes worse! But it is an artist’s job to try to explain the things we all feel as accurately as possible. That job doesn’t often pay very well and doesn’t come with benefits but it’s a job. Poets don’t feel joy or grief any deeper than folks who don’t write poetry, they can just sometimes find better words for how they feel. Take this bit of loveliness by the poet Jane Keynon, entitled “Otherwise.”

I got out of bed


on two strong legs.


It might have been


otherwise. I ate


cereal, sweet


milk, ripe, flawless


peach. It might


have been otherwise.


I took the dog uphill


to the birch wood.


All morning I did


the work I love.



 

At noon I lay down


with my mate. It might


have been otherwise.


We ate dinner together


at a table with silver


candlesticks. It might


have been otherwise.


I slept in a bed


in a room with paintings


on the walls, and


planned another day


just like this day.


But one day, I know,


it will be otherwise.

 

Oh man. And amen. She is just the best sometimes. That pinch that you feel inside your body when you read her words is like the first note of the first bird, a startling sound in the blue hour. Have you read her poems before? Do you know her story? It’s remarkable.

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Banal stuff first: Jane Kenyon. Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1947. Grew up a Midwestern girl. Went to University of Michigan for her undergraduate degree. Got her masters from University of Michigan.

Not banal: While a student at University of Michigan, she fell in love with her poetry professor, Donald Hall.

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If you didn’t know, this guy is a powerfully eloquent poet too. Check this out. It’s called “Affirmation.”

To grow old is to lose everything. 


Aging, everybody knows it. 


Even when we are young, 


we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads 


when a grandfather dies.


Then we row for years on the midsummer 


pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,


that began without harm, scatters 


into debris on the shore, 


and a friend from school drops 


cold on a rocky strand.


If a new love carries us 


past middle age, our wife will die 


at her strongest and most beautiful. 


New women come and go. All go. 


The pretty lover who announces 


that she is temporary


is temporary. The bold woman,


middle-aged against our old age,


sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand. 


Another friend of decades estranges himself 


in words that pollute thirty years. 


Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge 


and affirm that it is fitting


and delicious to lose everything.

Whoa. How crazy to turn that whole poem on a single word in the last line! So these two mortal, poetic souls fall in love. A professor with his student! How risqué! Especially considering that she was 19 years younger than him! Holy moly! And despite how the chancellors must have gossiped or how the faculty must have tittered, they were married in 1972.

They moved up to Donald’s family’s old place on Eagle Pond Farm in New Hampshire and wrote their hearts out. Jane wrote variations on Keats’ poem, “To Autumn” (in fact, she has often been compared to both Keats and Sylvia Plath), and translated the poet Anna Akhmatova from Russian to English. She also wrote four books of poems that are sharp as scythes and soft as cotton. Donald, for his part, wrote 13 books of poems, which won 14 or so prestigious prizes (you’ve never heard of) and became the Poet Laureate of the United States. Though Jane often struggled with depression, they made as happy a life as we humans can hope for and were, most likely, two of the most important American poets of the second half of the 20th century. Here’s how Donald put it in an interview.

“We rise shortly after 5. The coffee drips as I get the [Boston] Globe outside a nearby store. I bring Jane a cup in bed. We read the paper while we eat breakfast. First I work on poems, every day of the year when I am home; then I turn to an essay, a textbook, a book for children, a review, a biography, a story, a play. I read proof, I read gratuitously, I nap, I walk the dog. Jane and I work, meet, separate, work, meet… If I make my life sound like Eden, I know it isn’t; still, it is good.”

In 1989, it was discovered that Donald had contracted colon cancer. Jane writes this:

Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon


shine through chinks in the barn, moving


up the bales as the sun moves down.



 

Let the cricket take up chafing


as a woman takes up her needles 


and her yarn. Let evening come.



 

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned


in long grass. Let the stars appear


and the moon disclose her silver horn.



 

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.


Let the wind die down. Let the shed


go black inside. Let evening come.



 

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop


in the oats, to air in the lung


let evening come.



 

Let it come, as it will, and don’t


be afraid. God does not leave us


comfortless, so let evening come.

Donald had surgeries. He went through the brutality of chemotherapy. But by 1992, the cancer had metastasized to his liver. He went through more surgeries and more chemotherapy but was told that he had a one in three chance of living five more years. I imagine Jane pleading with God (she did her best to be a Christian) to take her instead. God must have heard this plea from husbands and wives and fathers and mothers a million billion times over.

My own mother would probably not consider herself a literary scholar but she reads almost as much as anyone I know. She reads what she likes, what entertains her, what speaks to her. She doesn’t seem to care much about what’s “Important to Read.” It was mom that introduced me to Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, drawn to them partly because she loves Bill Moyers, who featured them frequently in his books and television specials, and partly because, at the time, mom also had colon cancer.

It was when I was 11 or 12 and we were all pretty sure that mom was going to die. She thought so too. Dad and people from our church did the best that they could to shield my sister and I from how certain it seemed, but the heavy blankets of death hung over our house and, though we were young, we weren’t blind. Dad often made French toast for dinner while mom lay in bed in the dark bedroom, wetting her cracked lips with swabs of ice water. It was obvious even to children. It was a very dark time in our home.

Once, I saw something beautiful. I turned the corner of the kitchen and saw into the dining room where mom was sitting at the table, her head shaved, with an open book and a steaming cup of coffee and was staring out into our very green backyard. She just stared and stared. I couldn’t tell what she was looking at. After awhile, I said, “Mom? Are you okay?” She turned to me, smiled and said something I’ll never forget.

“I’m just so thankful that I get to have this cup of coffee.”

And she meant it.

As Donald Hall’s colon cancer went into remission, it was discovered in 1994 that Jane Kenyon had contracted terminal Leukemia. He recovered completely as she became sick. It was as if they were on a tragic see-saw. She had nursed him at his bedside at the hospital and at home through the nightmare of surgery and chemo. Now it was his turn to watch the person he loved most in the world as her body dwindled.

When Jane died, Donald wrote a book called “Without.” In it, Hall describes how, for their 22nd wedding anniversary, he gives her a ring…

…of pink tourmaline

with nine small diamonds around it.

She put it on her finger

and she immediately named it Please Don’t Die.

One rainy afternoon, I stood in the poetry section of Powell’s Books in Portland, crying and crying, and read “Without” cover to cover, twice in one go. That book of poems is like an axe, meant to split “un-feeling” in two. Please read the following poems carefully.

Last Days

by Donald Hall

 

“It was reasonable 


to expect.” So he wrote. The next day,


in a consultation room,

Jane’s hematologist Letha Mills sat down, 


stiff, her assistant 


standing with her back to the door. 


“I have terrible news,” 
Letha told them. “The leukemia is back. 


There’s nothing to do.” 
The four of them wept. He asked how long, 


why did it happen now? 


Jane asked only: “Can I die at home?”

 

Home that afternoon,

they threw her medicines into the trash. 


Jane vomited. He wailed 


while she remained dry-eyed – silent, 


trying to let go. At night 


he picked up the telephone to make 


calls that brought 


a child or a friend into the horror.

 

The next morning, 


they worked choosing among her poems 


for Otherwise, picked 


hymns for her funeral, and supplied each 


other words as they wrote 


and revised her obituary. The day after, 


with more work to do 


on her book, he saw how weak she felt, 


and said maybe not now; maybe 


later. Jane shook her head: “Now,” she said. 


“We have to finish it now.” 


Later, as she slid exhausted into sleep, 


she said, “Wasn’t that fun? 


To work together? Wasn’t that fun?”

 

He asked her, “What clothes 


should we dress you in, when we bury you?” 


“I hadn’t thought,” she said. 


“I wondered about the white salwar 


kameez,” he said – 


her favorite Indian silk they bought 


in Pondicherry a year 


and a half before, which she wore for best 


or prettiest afterward. 


She smiled. “Yes. Excellent,” she said. 


He didn’t tell her 


that a year earlier, dreaming awake, 


he had seen her 


in the coffin in her white salwar kameez.

 

Still, he couldn’t stop 


planning. That night he broke out with, 


“When Gus dies I’ll 
have him cremated and scatter his ashes 


on your grave!” She laughed 


and her big eyes quickened and she nodded: 


“It will be good 


for the daffodils.” She lay pallid back 


on the flowered pillow: 


“Perkins, how do you think of these things?”

 

They talked about their 


adventures – driving through England 


when they first married, 


and excursions to China and India. 


Also they remembered 


ordinary days – pond summers, working 


on poems together, 


walking the dog, reading Chekhov 


aloud. When he praised 


thousands of afternoon assignations


that carried them into 


bliss and repose on this painted bed, 


Jane burst into tears 


and cried, “No more fucking. No more fucking!”

 

Incontinent three nights 


before she died, Jane needed lifting 


onto the commode. He wiped her and helped her back into bed. 


At five he fed the dog 


and returned to find her across the room, 


sitting in a straight chair. 


When she couldn’t stand, how could she walk? 


He feared she would fall 


and called for an ambulance to the hospital, 


but when he told Jane,

her mouth twisted down and tears started. 


“Do we have to?” He canceled. 


Jane said, “Perkins, be with me when I die.”

 

“Dying is simple,” she said.


“What’s worst is… the separation.”


When she no longer spoke, 


they lay along together, touching, 


and she fixed on him 


her beautiful enormous round brown eyes, 


shining, unblinking, 


and passionate with love and dread.

 

One by one they came, 


the oldest and dearest, to say goodbye 


to this friend of the heart. 


At first she said their names, wept, and touched; 


then she smiled; then 


turned one mouth-corner up. On the last day 


she stared silent goodbyes 


with her hands curled and her eye stuck open.

 

Leaving his place beside her, 


where her eyes stared, he told her, 


“I’ll put these letters 


in the box.” She had not spoken 


for three hours, and now Jane said 


her last words: “O.K.”

 

At eight that night, 


her eyes open as they stayed 


until she died, brain-stem breathing 


started, he bent to kiss 


her pale cool lips again, and felt them 


one last time gather 


and purse and peck to kiss him back.

 

In the last hours, she kept 


her forearms raised with pale fingers clenched 


at cheek level, like 


the goddess figurine over the bathroom sink. 


Sometimes her right fist flicked 


or spasmed toward her face. For twelve hours 


until she died, he kept

scratching Jane Kenyon’s big bony nose. 


A sharp, almost sweet 


smell began to rise from her open mouth. 


He watched her chest go still. 


With his thumb he closed her round brown eyes.

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LETTER WITH NO ADDRESS


by Donald Hall



 

Your daffodils rose up


and collapsed in their yellow 


bodies on the hillside


garden above the bricks


you laid out in sand, squatting


with pants pegged and face


masked like a beekeeper’s 


against the black flies.


Buttercups circle the planks


of the old wellhead


this May while your silken


gardener’s body withers or moulds


in the Proctor graveyard.


I drive and talk to you crying


and come back to this house


to talk to your photographs.





At five A.M., when I walk outside,


mist lies thick on hayfields.


By eight the air is clear,


cool, sunny with the pale yellow


light of mid-May. Kearsarge


rises huge and distinct,


each birch and balsam visible.


To the west the waters


of Eagle Pond waver


and flash through poplars just


leafing out.



 

Always the weather,


writing its book of the world,


returns you to me. Ordinary days were best,


when we worked over poems


in our separate rooms.


I remember watching you gaze


out the January window


into the garden of snow


and ice, your face rapt


as you imagined burgundy lilies.



 

Your presence in this house


is almost as enormous


and painful as your absence.

 

Ah Donald. You’ve such a beautiful soul! Through sheer bravery he has stayed within the world. He has continued to write and, in my opinion, his poems are getting even better. He likes writing about baseball and has a pretty good collection called “The 13th Inning.” He also wrote a memoir about his experiences called, “The Best and Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon.”

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Wait, wait, wait. They’re letting POETS into the White House now? This photo of Donald, was apparently taken on “Hobo Day.”

While touring the country to promote “Without,” he said “People kept saying, ‘It must be painful for you.’ But you know, some people cannot talk about these things, some people can’t stop.” Since Jane died, he gets incredible volumes of letters from fans of Jane’s work and from cancer survivors or those who have lost loved ones, in which they pour out their secret hearts whole. “I’m not bothered by that role,” he says. “If I can comfort and be comforted, that’s a good thing.”

My mother survived two rounds of surgery and chemotherapy and her colon cancer went into remission. But, many years later, while on tour in Chicago, I stood on the high back deck of our friend Drew’s beautiful graystone building and gazed at the Sears Tower as my mom tearfully told me that her doctors had discovered that she had breast cancer. “I’m so, so sorry Nathan,” she said. The dark tower looked so alone in its heights.

That day, we drove from Chicago to New Orleans in a single go. We split the whole country in two, right down the middle, and I cried quietly in the back of the van amongst the bags and instruments. When we arrived at four in the morning, the humid taverns were still packed. People danced on the bar and sang in the sweltering neon light. I felt lost, as though I was eleven-years-old again.

But guess what? Mom beat THAT cancer too! In fact, the more that I think of it, my quiet, shy, generous and contemplative mother may very well be the toughest woman I have ever known. I called her yesterday and she was getting excited for their first trip to continental Europe. My mom and dad are going to see nine different countries across the sea. “Thankful” doesn’t even come close.

 

Notes From the Other Side

by Jane Kenyon

 

I divested myself of despair


and fear when I came here.



 

Now there is no more catching


one’s own eye in the mirror,



 

there are no bad books, no plastic,


no insurance premiums, and of course



 

no illness. Contrition 


does not exist, nor gnashing



 

of teeth. No one howls as the first


clod of earth hits the casket.



 

The poor we no longer have with us. 


Our calm hearts strike only the hour,



 

and God, as promised, proves


to be mercy clothed in light.

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Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks

by Jane Kenyon

I am the blossom pressed in a book,


found again after two hundred years….

 

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….



 

When the young girl who starves


sits down to a table


she will sit beside me….

 

I am food on the prisoner’s plate….


 

I am water rushing to the wellhead, 


filling the pitcher until it spills….

 

I am the patient gardener


of the dry and weedy garden….

 

I am the stone step,


the latch, and the working hinge….

 

I am the heart contracted by joy….

the longest hair, white


before the rest….

 

I am there in the basket of fruit 


presented to the widow….

 

I am the musk rose opening 


unattended, the fern on the boggy summit….


 

I am the one whose love


overcomes you, already with you


when you think to call my name….


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About psychopompkaleidoscope

Is a mortal who will not live forever.
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2 Responses to 7. Love Poems

  1. Emily says:

    I read Otherwise and Without for a poetry class in college we had to choose two poets to compare/contrast. (Mom’s selection, of course). They are really bone-chillingly beautiful books. Will have to read more of their poems.
    Liking your blog a lot… I see death knocking on a lot of doors at work, sometimes delivering souls to their next destination, wherever that is. We see the families crying their hearts out, but we rarely discuss what we’ve witnessed. Someone codes, dies, and then we go home and go to bed. Nice to read about it here. Keep it coming….

  2. My sister writes this:

    Well I was going to tell you… that I actually DIDN’T know that mom was going to die. You took me trick-or-treating the day she had been diagnosed. The only reason I had any kind of doubt that she might die was when she told me she might die in the car one day. And I think I didn’t really have much to say to that, but I had never even thought of it before. And even after she told me that, I think denial kicked in and I was just like whatever…mom is not going to die. Maybe I was at an age still I couldn’t really wrap my head around it being a real thing. Being 3 years younger than you, I think I was pretty oblivious to everything that was going on. And mom and dad kept life pretty normal for me. I still did all my same activities, except a couple times when Jenny Potter came to our house for my piano lessons instead of mom dropping me off there.

    Mom and dad were always on you for your grades and that kind of thing when we were kids. Obviously you had a lot going on that they didn’t know about… but between the two of us you were usually much more in tune to what other people were feeling. Remember when grandma had the heart attack and we drove back from Wallowa Lake? Mom was all upset and I was asking her and dad a million questions… you shot me a look to quit asking so many questions and then I realized it was not the time for talking.

    Later on of course I realized how sick mom had been… and when she had breast cancer I was even more worried it was a possibility… but even then I wasn’t very convinced. Although I do think mom has some freakish genes if these are really unrelated cancers and feel something else will pop up one of these days.

    Anyway I am making my way through the blog.

    I have to read the play between NL and NJ next… I like the days in the room song. Also the photo of you playing violin and satellite ballet photo.

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